Keep Writing

For eight months starting last December, I had been journaling faithfully nearly every day; six or seven days most weeks. Then, about six weeks ago I stopped. I’m not sure why — maybe because I’ve been working on other projects. But suddenly I realized I’d disobeyed my own instruction: Keep writing.

“Keep writing” is what I scrawl as the sign off for nearly every student paper I comment on. As in: “Lots of powerful emotions here … keep writing!” or “So many great images and details in here … keep writing!” It’s the one message I know is worth imparting to my students, and one I need to remember for myself, too.

My students live in shelters or inner-city buildings where windows are grated and hallways smell of smoke and urine. Some have boyfriends or parents in jail. They are teenagers raising babies; girls who want to go out clubbing and sleep late, but who instead have to rise when their babies cry in the middle of the night or in the morning. “Keep writing,” I scribble on their pages, hoping they will someday tell the stories that in the meantime the world is writing for them … in the form of either rants against ‘babies having babies’ or in the form of statistics on the dangers of teen pregnancy, or in stories of domestic abuse that are told again and again in the newspapers.

“Keep writing,” I admonish my students – many of whom can’t spell “maybe” or “our.” Or who struggle for the twenty minutes of our writing time to craft a few lines, but who don’t know where to put the periods or the difference between a sentence and a paragraph.

And tonight, after seven years of teaching, I have forgotten what I mean by it: “Keep writing.” Even decades into my own writing practice, I sometimes forget.

Writing: I do it. I teach it. My cabinets and shelves are filled with at least four dozen of my own journals – plus those of others. I write my way out of depressions and into ideas for work, or for solving relationship problems. I write my way into memories and through dreams. But how do I teach others to do it?

Mostly, I don’t. As the creative writing instructor I’m freed of the responsibility to teach grammar and syntax. Sometimes I teach definitions such as metaphor v. simile, sonnet, haiku and stanza. But mostly what I teach is to keep at it. Read something and answer with a poem. Write about your anger, fear, memories. Don’t be afraid of the blank page or the quiet span of minutes it takes to get that sentence down. And then the next …

photo by Aja Riggs copyright 2007

Back to School Shopping: Paper, pencils and juggling balls

Two weeks till school and the autumn ritual has begun: Back to School Shopping. Not for my students. They are high school – (or junior high school – ) dropouts. Now they are enrolled in the GED program where I teach. Let’s just say they’re not the pocket-protector types. It’s rare that they come to class with a pen or pencil, let alone a new notebook. We provide the pencils, paper and folders to store their work. But I was the kind of kid who loved school and loved back-to-school shopping – and now I’m the kind of teacher who loves the same. This  year my back-to-school shopping list includes:

  •  Index cards: As I’ve said, the blank page is scary for its vast expanse of white space. The index card is less so; it’s smaller, easier to fill; less intimidating … which is important for my students, who have had their confidence about their ability to write bludgeoned out of them by previous school experiences.

  • Colorful file folders: File folders for storing student work in. Color because manila is too work-a-day. Color livens things up.

  • Colored printer paper: For printing assignments on. Again, white would do, but color makes everything seem more festive.  

  • Juggling balls: Yes, I know, it’s poetry class. But I recently read that ADD adults write better if they take breaks for activities like walking a straight line, balancing on one foot … and juggling. As I mentioned earlier, my students left high school for one reason or another. Not necessarily because they failed school … more likely school failed them. I suspect that many have learning disabilities that they didn’t get the proper attention for. And the more I read about ADD, the more I’m sure that many of my students have it. Or, they’re just kinesthetic learners; the kind of students who need to be moving while they take in new information. So we’ll try taking juggling breaks. 

 Next on my to-do list … decide which poems to start the year off with: What to read? What to write? That … and brush up on my juggling.

Looking for the Moon

Last week I was standing on the beach with my sister and my niece. We were spending a vacation week together and had just eaten dinner at an outdoor restaurant. After we finished our meals, we wandered down to the sea. My niece, who is 8, was collecting white stones, looking for the smoothest and palest she could find.

“They are special stones,” she explained, choosing one for herself. “They help you find your style. Do you want one?” She held out her open palm.

I examined the varieties of round and semi-round stones, some the size of a quarter, some the size of a bean. My sister took one, but I hesitated for a moment. “What kind of style? Like fashion?” I asked.

“No,” she said in her serious little girl voice. “For art.”

Y. is a manga artist. Her mother is a painter, printmaker and photographer. Well, it couldn’t hurt, I figured, thinking it might help me with my writing. I chose a stone that looked like a rounded triangle with gray shadows under its translucent white surface.

“You have to put it in a cup of water under the moon,” Y. explained. “Do I have to be outside under the moon, or can I put the cup on a windowsill that looks out on the moon?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It just has to be under the moon.” I could see she was making up the rules as she went along, but that didn’t make the ritual any less serious.

That evening, when I returned to the inn where I was staying, I looked out the window but could not see the moon. I put on a pair of flip flops and stepped outside. The sky was overcast. No stars, no moon. The second night rain was coming. There was no chance of seeing the moon, but I walked outside anyway, down the driveway and around back where the pool reflected the cloud-strewn darkness.

A week later, vacation has ended and I am back home. I’ve continued to look for the moon, but still haven’t seen it. It could be the new moon, I thought for the first few nights of its absence, but as the week passed, I realized it can’t possibly be new for this long. Missing the moon has made me long to see it even more.

As if Y’s spell was gaining power, I felt myself putting off returning to my creative writing. The moon was missing. I was missing teaching poetry. My creative voice seemed to have strayed away as well. In the suburbs the streetlights dim the starlight, but I can still see the Big Dipper and Venus. So, why not the moon?

I have the stone on my nightstand. It seems to have lost some of its glow, perhaps because it’s so far from the sea. It needs the moon, too, so I can finish the ritual and bathe it in water.

Tonight when I took my dog for a walk I scanned the sky as I turned the corners of our familiar route. Still no moon. But then a shooting star blazed across the sky, just over a neighbor’s house. If it weren’t for my niece and her secret spell, I’d have missed that. It was just enough to sustain me for one more night. Hopefully tomorrow the moon will reappear.

Photo by Aja Riggs Copyright 2007

Studio Art

I just returned from the Parrish Art Musem in Southampton, NY, where I saw an exhibit called “Studio as Muse.” The word studio, I learned comes from the Latin, studium, which contains elements of both study and zeal. The exhibit contains detailed miniatures of various artists’ studios. Like dollhouses or diaramas, one can peek into these scaled-down rooms in barns and outbuildings and see every detail of the artist at work: from tiny tubes of paints and tooth-pick-sized paintbrushes to doll-sized artists and their doll-sized pet dogs.

 In Chuck Close’s miniature studio one sees the artist sitting in his wheelchair, ankles crossed, contemplating a canvas. On a wall nearby in the museum this quote from Close is posted:

“The most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner, where no one else’s answers will fit and you will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions … I think that’s a really good way to get all those other voices out of your studio, all those other people who are sharing that space with you.”

Close offered that quote to Joe Fig, the artist who rendered the miniature studios at the Parrish. He was describing, he said, “a moment shared by all artists.” …

… And, Iwould add, poets! That quote so well describes what it is like to create a poem; that moment of backing oneself into the corner of the poem’s form; that feeling of utter — sometimes painful solitude — while one searches for their personal solution; the necessity of leaving all other voices behind in order, ultimately, to find your own.